Preview: A Tribute to Martin Litton, Wooden Dory Pioneer & Grand Canyon Savior

December 5, 2014

Dustin Urban

Martin Litton

Our trip visiting with Martin Litton on his 90th birthday float of the Grand Canyon

My Grand Canyon visit with environmentalist and wooden dory pioneer Martin Litton began with a thunderous "BOOM" which echoed off the walls of the side canyon and sent us scurrying back to our rafts. Thunder is not a welcome sound while exploring a slot canyon prone to flash flooding, but upon return to our rafts we discovered the true source of the thunder: an exploded air bladder in one of our gear boats, an 18-foot rubber catamaran.

The boat was crippled, and it was all we could do to float a quarter mile to the next camp... a camp that was already occupied by none other than Martin Litton, 90 at the time, and his crew. With no other alternative, my party of 16 people and five rafts crowded into their camp and got to work patching our raft, pitching tents and prepping dinner.

The next morning some friends and I introduced ourselves to Martin and enjoyed a thoughtful visit with him, pictured above. It's no exaggeration to say that without Martin, there would have been no Grand Canyon for us to float. Instead, the beach on which we sat would probably be buried beneath another reservoir.

Following his recent death at 97, there has been an outpouring of thoughts on Martin Litton's legacy. As an environmental activist, Litton was incredibly effective. Beginnning in 1963, he and David Brower "successfully derailed the Bureau of Reclamation’s plans for two dams—the Bridge Canyon Dam and Marble Canyon Dam—that were slated for construction between lakes Powell and Mead, within the last 277-mile running stretch of the Grand Canyon. He and Brower took out full-page ads in the New York Times decrying the dams... (and) in 1968, the plan to flood the Grand Canyon was scrapped." (source: OutsideOnline.com)

In 1995, a documentary hosted by musician James Taylor was released which chronicles his descent of the Grand Canyon guided by Martin Litton and crew in their wooden dories of Martin's design. The quality of this VHS-recorded video is poor, but it does a nice job of bringing you inside the grand and telling Martin's story. Enjoy:

James Taylor's Colorado River Adventure with Martin Litton

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